Hasidism: Between Ecstasy and Magic

Hasidism: Between Ecstasy and Magic

Hasidism: Between Ecstasy and Magic

Hasidism: Between Ecstasy and Magic

Excerpt

Ecstasy and magic stand at the opposite extremes of most modern religious modalities. The spiritualization of the contact with the divine in Western mysticism, radically different from the more materialist propensities of magic, invites detachment from the body—and from corporeality in general—in order to be able to enjoy communion with the divine. Magic has been conceived of as a phenomenon drastically different from ecstasy. However, the founder of eighteenth-century Hasidism has been described as both a mystic and a magician. Rabbi Yisrael ben Eliezer, better known as the Baՙal Shem Tov, literally, "the Master of the Good Name," combines in his praxis these two ways of relating to reality, which were so characteristic of archaic modes of religion. Were they independent activities, unrelated moments in his spiritual life? Did they create a tension in Hasidic religiosity? Does magic preclude an intense mystical life, or vice versa? From the phenomenological point of view, what does the nexus between these two ideals mean? Does Hasidism in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries preserve this dual nature of its found? Is the link between mysticism and magic new with Hasidism or can we find precedents for it in earlier forms of Jewish literature? Are the answers to these questions available in the framework of the existing historical and phenomenological descriptions of Hasidism?

These questions have apparently been marginal in academic surveys of this mystical lore; they move at the center of the present study. Rather than portraying Hasidic literature as reflecting disparate religious moments, the ecstatic and the magical modes, we shall propose here a more complex religious model, one that sees these two aspects as phases of a more comprehensive scheme. The gist of this argument is that in many instances the Hasidic "righteous men," the ẓaddiqim, did not conceive of ecstasy as their ultimate goal; rather, they had an additional spiritual aim: the drawing down of the divine effluence for the benefit of the community. This latter movement, described here as magic, shows that mysticism and leadership are part of a more coherent way of life, one that incorporates the sublime experience of the perfecti into a large ideal, and that strives to contribute to the more ordinary well-being of the Ẓaddiq's humble adherents. It is the return of the Hasidic mystic from his ecstatic experience as a powerful master who is, consequently, conceived as the pillar of his community, that will concern us in the following discussions.

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